Rudkin, Margaret (1897–1967)

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Rudkin, Margaret (1897–1967)

American businesswoman who founded Pepperidge Farm Bakeries. Born Margaret Fogarty on September 14, 1897, in New York City; died on June 1, 1967, in New Haven, Connecticut; daughter of Joseph I. Fogarty and Margaret (Healy) Fogarty; educated in public high schools; married Henry Albert Rudkin (a stockbroker), on April 8, 1923 (died 1966); children: Henry, Jr. (b. 1924); William (b. 1926); Mark (b. 1929).

Born on September 14, 1897, Margaret Rudkin grew up in New York City with her parents Joseph and Margaret Fogarty and four younger siblings. The family lived in a four-story brownstone in what is now a section of Manhattan known as Tudor City, and young Margaret learned to bake and cook from her Irish grandmother who lived with them. When Margaret was 12, her grandmother died, and the family moved to Flushing, Long Island (now part of Queens). She attended public schools there and graduated as valedictorian of her class.

Aiming for a career in business, Margaret became a bookkeeper at a local bank, the first woman to be hired at that institution. In 1919, she took a job at the brokerage firm of McClure, Jones & Co., where Henry Albert Rudkin was a partner in the firm. Though 12 years older than Margaret, he had the advantage of being an Irish New Yorker, and the two were married on April 8, 1923. The firm did well on Wall Street, and the Rudkins bought 125 acres near Fairfield, Connecticut, built a mansion in the Tudor style, and called it Pepperidge Farm after a much-loved pepperidge tree in the front yard.

The Rudkins were both interested in horses, hunting and polo, and the house originally had a garage for 5 cars and stables for 12 horses. However, the Depression and a bad polo accident that forced Henry's leave of absence from work for six months brought an end to their expensive recreational pursuits. Margaret sold the horses and most of the cars, let the full-time servants go, and began devising ways to make money at home.

Although she had servants to do much of the housework, Rudkin frequently did the cooking herself, using recipes from her collection of old cookbooks. While some sources suggest that she began baking bread in 1937 in order to provide wholesome, additive-free slices for her son Mark, who suffered from asthma, in her official history she wrote only that she began because she was interested in providing "proper food for children." "They say life begins at forty," she said. "Well, that's how old I was when I baked that first loaf." Her original efforts to make stone-ground whole wheat bread turned out "as hard as rock and about one inch high." She continued to experiment, and eventually perfected a recipe. In August 1937, she sold her first batch of loaves to a grocer in Fairfield.

The bread was expensive—more than twice the price of commercial loaves—because it used fresh ingredients such as butter and whole milk. It sold well, however, and demand grew; that fall, she hired several workers and moved the bakery from the kitchen to the garage, where she had more room. She made white loaves with unbleached flour, and soon had a standing order for 24 loaves a day from the prestigious Charles & Company specialty store in New York City. For the first few weeks, Henry Rudkin delivered the bread when he commuted in to Wall Street.

Rudkin received glowing publicity about her bread, an important factor in her success. Articles praising her bread appeared in the New York Journal and American, the New York Herald Tribune, the World Telegram, and Reader's Digest. Orders poured in from all over the United States, Canada, and overseas. In 1940, she borrowed $15,000 to move the bakery from the farm to a former auto salesroom and hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut. Within a year, she was producing more than 50,000 loaves a week, mostly white bread although she still made whole wheat bread and added other items. She rewarded Benjamin Sonnenberg, the man who had suggested the Reader's Digest article, by giving him a 5% interest in the business; by 1960, this would be worth more than $1 million.

Pepperidge Farm became a major firm during the 1940s and 1950s. Margaret Rudkin oversaw the daily operations of the bakery as president, while Henry Rudkin, who quit his Wall Street job to become chair of the company, handled finances and marketing. In 1947, the company moved production to a new plant in Norwalk. Other plants were opened in Pennsylvania in 1949 and Illinois in 1953. Rudkin also bought a frozen pastry line from a New Hampshire firm, as well as cookie recipes from the Delacre bakery in Belgium. In the 1950s, Rudkin, who was described as "slim and sophisticated, with gorgeous red hair, green eyes, and a milk-white skin," began appearing in television commercials for her products, although the company's sales were always driven more by word of mouth than by heavy advertising.

In 1960, the company was making profits of $1.3 million on sales of $32 million. That year, Rudkin sold the business to the Campbell Soup Company in exchange for Campbell stock worth $28 million. She continued to run Pepperidge Farm, and was also a director of Campbell Soup. In 1962, her son William became president of Pepperidge Farm, and she took over her husband's job as chair until he died in May 1966. Five months later, Margaret stepped down as chair of the company. By this time she was very ill with breast cancer, for which she had been treated with surgery ten years earlier. She died in June 1967 in New Haven, Connecticut.

Rudkin's success was due not only to her business acumen, but also to her love of cooking and passionate interest in her products. She treated her employees well, paying them more than other companies paid similar workers; for the company's 20th anniversary in 1957, each of the 1,000 employees gave a dollar to buy her a 15th-century cookbook, De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, which she used for inspiration when she wrote the bestselling The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook in 1963. Before she died, she gave her extensive collection of cookbooks to the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, and donated money to the Yale-New Haven Hospital and other institutions.


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Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer, Bayville, New York